Both John Whitmore (review) and Paul Corfield Godfrey (review) were seriously impressed by this disc when it first appeared as a CD. Now Naxos has issued it in Blu-Ray format. Usually I try to avoid looking at the reviews of colleagues when I’m reviewing the same recording but in this case the ‘damage was done’; I’d read their reviews a while before I knew I was to receive these disc for appraisal.
I share much of their enthusiasm for the performances. Le Corsaire is given a crisp, lively reading. It is, for the most part, a dashing piece and it needs to be conducted with flair, which is what happens here while the playing is spirited and sure-footed. The well-defined sound adds to the pleasure.
There’s much to enjoy about the performance of Symphonie Fantastique too. Slatkin generates admirable tension in the opening pages and as the first movement unfolds he handles well the many changes of direction and speed. I like the fine degree of clarity about this performance: lots of inner detail registers and I don’t believe that this is solely the work of the engineers; the conductor must play a part in this. The ball scene is a delight. I love the left/right placing of the harps and the way they’re accorded just the right degree of prominence - but not too much - in the orchestral texture. The waltz is graceful at the start and then Slatkin whips up the music in an exhilarating fashion towards the end. I applaud the decision to include the movement with its cornet obbligato as an appendix to the performance; most recordings give you one version or the other.
Slatkin handles the long slow movement well. I like the plangent woodwinds at the beginning and throughout the movement there’s an excellent atmosphere. The performance is expansive but it comes off very well. So far so good but with the last two movements some doubts begin to arise. The Marche au supplice is deliberate and measured but as I’ve listened to it I’ve missed the essential element of menace. To my ears it sounds as if Slatkin is controlling the music a bit too closely, holding it on too tight a leash. The same is true, I think, of the Songe d’une nuit du Sabbat. Incidentally, Naxos split this movement into four tracks; I don’t know if that’s peculiar to the Blu-Ray or whether the CD is presented in the same way. The performance is, in many ways, very good but, as with the previous movement, it just sounds a bit too controlled. Crucially, though there’s power in this performance it seems to me to lack wildness - we are concerned with a witches’ Sabbath here, after all.
So here we have a performance that is never less than good - and one that’s very well played - but conductors such as Sir Colin Davis (review), Sir John Eliot Gardiner and, from a younger generation, Robin Ticciati (review) have brought more flair and drama to the score, I feel - to say nothing of such highly individual interpreters as Beecham (review) or Munch (review). None of these performances are yet available on Blu-Ray; indeed, I think I’m correct in saying that so far Slatkin has the field to himself in this format.
As for the Blu-Ray sound, I listened in the 2.0 Stereo - PCM format and was impressed, if not blown away. I have not heard the CD version so I don’t know how much of an enhancement is offered by BD-A. The sound is clear and truthful and it’s very well defined. I particularly like the firm, though not excessive, bass; the cellos and basses register solidly while the percussion, especially the bass drum are very well reported. I did wonder if the woodwind were a bit forwardly balanced in the second movement but overall I liked the sound.
My overall verdict would be that if you want a BD-A version of this highly original masterpiece and choose this Slatkin disc I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. You’ll find that both sonically and interpretatively it’s very reliable and often much better than that. However, if you can bear to be patient it might be worth waiting a little while to see if any of the classic versions of Symphonie Fantastique appears in BD-A format.
Previous reviews (CD): John Whitmore (January Recording of the Month) & Paul Corfield Godfrey
Masterwork Index: Symphonie